The flight of Falcon 9/Dragon: Doing it right

For those that want to relive the experience of success, SpaceX has posted a short highlight video of last week’s successful test flight of Falcon 9/Dragon capsule.

It is difficult to overstate the importance or magnifience of this achievement, accomplished not by a government but by a private company. As SpaceX rightly brags on its website:

This marks the first time a commercial company has successfully recovered a spacecraft reentering from Earth orbit. It is a feat previously performed by only six nations or government agencies: the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India, and the European Space Agency.

What I find even more telling is how quickly SpaceX got this done. The first launch attempt of their first rocket, Falcon 1, took place in March of 2006. About that same time they began work on Falcon 9, and were able to successfully fly its first mission only four years later. Contrast that with NASA. President Bush proposed building a replacement for the shuttle in 2004, and six years later all NASA could do was fly a mockup of Ares I/Orion, not the actual article. And that leaves out NASA’S numerous previous attempts to build a shuttle replacement that spent billions, and never did more than produce pretty powerpoint presentations.

SpaceX’s speed of operation (a sure sign of efficiency) is reminiscent of the early days of the space age. Then, NASA might have laid out the overall plan, but everything was built by private companies, all used to fighting for profits and market share. None could afford a leisurely pace, nor could they afford to do things badly. If they did either, their business would suffer. As a result, the United States was able to go from having no ability to put anything in orbit to putting its first man in space in less than three years, and was able to follow that up with the first manned lunar mission only seven years later.

The greed for power, or why it is always better to do without government help

In an article today on “NASA: It’s Our Space Station – Not Yours,” Keith Cowing has some harsh words for NASA and its management of the research on ISS. Based on what he witnessed at a NASA meeting, it appears that NASA wants to retain control over all research on the space station, while denying access to outside other researchers. Key quote:

In addition to prohibiting the ISS National Laboratory contractor from getting its hands on human-based research, Mark Uhran also stated that any proposal that proposed to do anything with spacecraft systems or engineering would be similarly deemed non-responsive. In other words two of the most interesting things you can do on the ISS – the sorts of thing you’d want a larger research base to focus on (assuming you are really interested in outside participation) are off limits due to executive fiat.

Where is NASA’s justification for limiting the ability of the private and educational sectors from making full utilization of the amazing capabilities that are offered by the ISS? Answer: NASA made it up. Truth be known, NASA was dragged kicking and screaming into supporting this National Laboratory concept. Congress had to enact a law to make them do it.

None of this surprises me. NASA is a government agency, and as a government agency it is going to protect its turf, come hell or high water. It is for this reason I think it a bad idea for the new space rocket companies to take any NASA money, up front. If they do, NASA will immediately use those funds as a club to force these new companies to do things as NASA wishes, rather than being free to compete and innovate on their own. In other words, NASA will use the funds to maintain control of all space exploration.

Better the new companies build their rockets and spaceships on their own, and then sell these new inventions to NASA or whoever else wants to use them. Let the profits pay for the work, not the needs and regulations of a government agency.

Not only will this free competiton produce a lot more creativity and innovation, it will almost certainly help to reduce the cost of space travel, as these companies fight to gain market share. And most importantly, it will frame the future exploration of space in the context of freedom rather that a state-run endeavor.

And isn’t freedom the principle that the United States of America stands for?

Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic team up to propose orbital craft

Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic have teamed up to propose a four person reusable orbital spacecraft to ferry crews to ISS. Key quote:

The spacecraft, designed to launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket and dock with the international space station, could be ready for test flights as early as 2014. The remotely piloted spacecraft would be able to carry four passengers initially, including three astronauts and one paying ticketholder, though based on market demand the number of private rides aboard the vehicle could grow to two, with four astronaut seats available, sources said. In the works at Orbital for the past year, the reusable spacecraft would be built using existing materials and technologies, employ standard hypergolic propellants and rely on a pusher escape system in the event of a launch mishap, sources said. [emphasis mine]

Note their insistence that they be allowed to fly tourists. This is a major change from how NASA has operated in the past, as a Soviet-style government agency hostile to commercial profits.

Correction: Clark Lindsey notes that the Orbital press release makes no mention of Virgin Galactic, as reported above.

Falcon 9 launch a success. Dragon capsule returns successfully

SpaceX is two for two! The Falcon 9 launch today was a success, and was topped off by the successful return of the Dragon capsule after two orbits.

This is big news. Think about it: a private company — not a government — has designed and built a rocket and capsule, capable of carrying astronauts, and successfully launched both and recovered the capsule. Hot dog! True space travel might very well be around the corner at last.

The space program is dead, long live the space industry!

The news following the midterm election results have not sounded good for NASA. Two stories on Monday alone signaled the bad news:

Earlier stories last week were no more encouraging:

While Republicans have, since the 1970s, generally been more enthusiastic than Democrats about NASA and manned space exploration, the new Republican Congress has a tone that seems decidedly different from past years. Above all, it appears the public is finally becoming aware of the recent explosion in the federal debt, as illustrated by the graph below. (hat tip to Gateway Pundit and The Captain’s Comments.)

Federal deficit

The public’s growing concern about these numbers was clearly reflected in the election results. First, there was the success of many tea party candidates advocating fiscal responsibility and a radical shrinking of government. Even in cases where conservatives lost, the closeness of the election in districts or states where liberals have rarely in the past been challenged suggests the mood of the electorate is decidedly shifting in a direction against federal spending.

Second, the electorate seemed surprisingly hostile to pork, expressing little interest in being brought off with baubles for their home districts. Thus, candidates who ran against pork seemed to get far more enthusiastic attention and positive publicity than those elected officials famous for “bringing home the bacon.”

In such an atmosphere, the priorities of Congress will be forced to change. The outlook therefore does not look good for the type of pork funding represented by the NASA authorization bill passed on September 29, with its billions of subsidies for the aerospace industry.

We can see an indication of this new tone by some of the initial plans announced by the Republican leadership. As a first step, the Republicans have proposed cutting the federal budget back 2008 levels. This change alone would reduce NASA’s annual budget by about $2 billion, or 10%.

This solution, however, will not close the budget gap, only shrink it slightly. The Republicans will still be faced with massive amounts of red ink and a public demanding that they deal with it. To prove they mean what they say, the new House leadership will be forced to propose some additional draconian cuts.

Unfortunately, the circumstances at this moment has made NASA a prime budget-cutting target. » Read more

Cable subscribers flee to internet

More technology disruption! Cable companies are losing subscribers, and it appears they are shifting their video viewing to the internet. Key quote:

Consumers who use the Internet to get their movies and TV shows bypass not just the cable companies, but the cable networks that produce the content. The move could have the same disruptive effect on the TV and movie industries as digital downloads have had on music.

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